Monday 8 February 2010

An Unsuitable Job for A Former Detainee

There has been plenty of comment but very little clarity following yesterday's Sunday Times report of accusations by Amnesty International's Gita Saghal that her organisation's "high profile associations" with former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg in its 'Counter Terror With Justice' campaign "was risking its reputation". After speaking to the newspaper, Ms Saghal has been suspended from her post pending the outcome of an internal investigation and a website has been set up by South Asia Citizens Web to defend her.

In a statement, Gita Saghal said:

A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when a great organisation must ask: if it lies to itself, can it demand the truth of others? For in defending the torture standard, one of the strongest and most embedded in international human rights law, Amnesty International has sanitised the history and politics of the ex-Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg and completely failed to recognize the nature of his organisation Cageprisoners.

The tragedy here is that the necessary defence of the torture standard has been inexcusably allied to the political legitimisation of individuals and organisations belonging to the Islamic Right.

Amnesty International has responded with a statement of its own and Cageprisoners has published a detailed rebuttal letter from Moazzam Begg to Sunday Times journalist Richard Kerbaj, accusing him of ignoring the answers to questions raised in a telephone interview. Mainstays of the muscular 'Decent Left' Nick Cohen and Martin Bright have set up a Facebook page in Saghal's defence, David Aaronovitch has joined the fray, the jihadi-obessed Harry's Place has cranked into gear with its usual tirade of insults and arch rivals Islamophobia Watch has replied with some thoroughly nasty comments of its own about Saghal and Women Against Fundamentalism.

The rest of us, it seems, are in the dark and somewhat bewildered, unable to make an informed judgement in the absence of specific detail in the allegations against Moazzem Begg (right) or Cageprisoners's work with Amnesty.

I don't know either Begg or Gita Saghal, but her general comments so far seem only to imply that by raising concerns about the treatment in Britain of what I would otherwise consider extremely obnoxious individuals - by opposing the chaotic system of control orders or the use of expulsions to countries with dubious human rights, for example - Cageprinsoners is guilty of association with 'the Islamic Right'. Presumably the same applies to providing support to their families and therefore means there are plenty of others (including myself) as well as Amnesty International who are equally guilty. Saghal's allies in the 'Decent Left' and the rightwing press undoubtedly think so.

If, however, there is specific evidence that Moazzem Begg or Cageprisoners are "committed to systematic discrimination" that "fundamentally undermines the universality of human rights", then I don't think it is unreasonable to expect some hard facts to back up this serious allegation.

Equally, not one of the activists I know and respect is completely infallible and supporters of Gita Sahgal are asking far too much in demanding unconditional backing because she has a track record as an anti-racist activist, rather than because of the detail of her allegations. Moreover, the argument that a mainstream organisation like Amnesty International is somehow acting improperly and 'denying free speech' in suspending a member of staff for publicly criticising her employer in the press also seems very thin - that's what mainstream employers tend to do to protect themselves and it's what defines the bravery of 'whistle-blowers': speaking out regardless of the inevitable consequences.

Then there is the issue of Moazzem Begg himself. Regardless of his past, his decision to use his experiences in Guantanamo to campaign for its closure, to speak alongside some of his former US army guards and to call for dialogue seems completely in keeping with Amnesty's work. Most importantly of all, the nature of the ordeal he faced in the name of ‘freedom’ and 'democracy' during his incarceration suggests he deserves rather greater courtesy from an activist and campaigner than accusations made through the pages of a Sunday newspaper.

Until there is more substantive information from Gita Saghal, I'm not sure that I want to automatically jump aboard a bandwagon of condemnation started by those who broadly think most Muslims are suspect and that sacrificing human rights is a necessary consequence of the 'war on terror'.

However, one of my friends, who has been involved in Women Against Fundamentalism and Southall Black Sisters for many years, has promised more detail soon. I await the next developments with growing curiosity.


Anonymous said...

I would be very surprised if Gita Saghal is able to provide any further information. She has had opportunity to do so thus far and hasn't.

Anonymous said...

Great post Kevin, pretty much what I have been thinking and saying.

Also, Rod Liddle has joined in as well defending Gita. Indeed the Times article was vague as nowhere does she give any rebuttal evidence instead it is shrouded in assertions. What also confuses me (and where Gita contradicts herself) is when she says she defends Moazzam's human rights but as a human rights activist and Cage Prisoners:

"The issue is a fundamental one about the importance of the human rights movement maintaining an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination and fundamentally undermine the universality of human rights."

But where is the evidence that Cage Prisoners and Moazzam Begg does this? If you are going to accuse individual/organisation of something as serious as this then you need to back it up as opposed to including the catch-all phrase, 'Islamic Right' and what does that mean anyway?

I too wait to see WAF's statement with curiosity. You are right as well, there has been no clarity just assertions, further clouded by the right-wing press and the pro-war 'left'.

Gita has contradicted herself when she states human rights for all... but when really not for some, cos that's what it boils down to.

Kevin said...

Apparently WAF are meeting this evening and a good friend who is involved will then provide me with a copy of their 'evidence'. I'm still holding back on the scepticism as best as I can, but it had better been good...

Anonymous said...

"I'm still holding back on the scepticism as best as I can, but it had better been good..."


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